Weeds are a symptom, not the cause, of a problem. We can observe weeds to read the landscape, deduce what reparative steps need to be taken, and speed up the natural sequence of recovery. Weeds can actually be great friends to gardeners. In any square meter of ground, there can be thousands of seeds waiting to germinate, but the condition of the ground determines what grows.
For example, compacted ground will spur decompacting weeds to grow, and nature, in no hurry, waits for the process of decompaction to occur. On the other hand, when the soil is too loose, the weeds will have soil stabilizing characteristics, such as hairnet root systems. Once the soil has stabilized, it’ll go on to the next cycle plants.
Weeds also indicate soil minerals. The bracken fern, common after fires, are known for harvesting potassium, most of which burns off in fires. The plants after fires are those which can harvest potassium when it’s in low supply. The ferns can be cut and mulched to the ground to reduce the number of ferns growing. However, if they are burned, the ground is only further depleted of potassium, so more ferns will come back.
A classic function of weeds throughout the world is to restore fertility in the landscape, replenishing nitrogen, and this is done largely by the peas and beans families. This goes all the way into legume trees. These plants have special relationships with bacteria in the soil that trade nitrogen deposits for starch. This is a great way to fertilize the ground. It’s how nature does it, and we can use the same technique by partnering with nitrogen-fixing plants.
In crop gardens, we sometimes get into a spatial race with weeds, and the solution is to replace the weeds with “designed weeds” to take up the space. This can be done with green manure mulches to fertilize the gardens and supply quality mulch.
This is an example of how understanding the inner workings of weeds allows us to harmonize with natural systems to both repair the earth and create production for ourselves.
• Weeds are a symptom of a problem, not the cause, so we can use weeds to read the landscape.
• Thousands of seeds are in the ground waiting to germinate, and the ground conditions will determine which ones do.
• Compacted soils will encourage decompacting weeds, such as dandelions, to grow; loose soils will encourage stabilizing weeds with hairnet roots to grow.
• Areas that have been burned will encourage potassium-harvesting plants, like bracken ferns, to grow in order the recover the landscape.
• Weeds, especially leguminous plants, are often restoring the fertility of the land be replenishing nitrogen in the soil.
• We can use our knowledge of weeds to select “designed weeds” to take up the space that volunteer weeds would normally try to occupy, thus harmonizing with nature.
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About Geoff: Geoff is a world-renowned permaculture consultant, designer, and teacher. He has established permaculture demonstration sites that function as education centers in all the world’s extreme climates — information on the success of these systems is networked through the Permaculture Research Institute and the www.permaculturenews.org website.
About Permaculture: Permaculture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture) integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. Permaculture applies holistic solutions that are applicable in rural and urban contexts and at any scale. It is a multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics, and community development.